(First published by Culture Matters)
“I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street,” recalled Langston Hughes of his first literary forays, songs that “had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going.” The remark indicates in microform the emphasis and direction of Hughes's poetry in general: its blues-inflected verve and musicality; its demotic modernism and open-eyed, streets-up democracy; its refusal to ignore or reify the pain of poverty in American life, and the devastation of what W.E.B. Du Bois at the turn of the century had called “the color line”; its urge by contrast to pay tribute to the perseverance and creativity of 'his' people as a collective. “I am the darker brother”, Hughes wrote in one (now-famous) poem, partly addressed to Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, whose rollicksome, quasi-proletarian verses he credited as formative influences on his own work: “I, too, sing America.”
For Hughes, such a cultural mission could delight and inspire, revealing new depths and dimensions to the national dream as it was lived by the masses, by communities of colour, by vast swathes of the population ordinarily rendered invisible by the literary and political mores of the time. In one early piece, he claimed fellowship with the “Dream-singers, / Story-tellers, / Dancers” of Harlem – a poetic camaraderie he likewise extended to “Elevator-boys, / Ladies' maids, / Crap-shooters, / Cooks, / Waiters, / Jazzers”. Against the harshness and desperation of contemporary experience in the nation's urban centres, the Missouri-born Hughes had an almost preternatural ability to tune in to the vibrant, rough-and-tumble clamour of local lives on their own frequency. His portrait of “Lenox Avenue: Midnight” begins with colloquial sass and effortless cool: “The rhythm of life / Is a jazz rhythm, / Honey. / The gods are laughing at us.” For Hughes, this “jazz rhythm” was a sign of the times: of a new modernity shaped and sounded by black, largely working-class communities. But it was also a portal into American history. In one late poem, Hughes re-imagined the songs of enslaved Africans during the nineteenth century in its light, their voices sublimated – bursting finally free – in the form of the “Jazz!” concocted by “Jelly Roll's piano, / Buddy Bolden's trumpet, / Kid Ory's trombone”.
In his later years, Hughes was in fact criticised (including by a precocious James Baldwin) for his tendency to aestheticise black art and experience, speech and music, in the process creating stereotypes, his critics objected, that lesser (or outright hostile) writers could easily parody or dismiss. Hughes countered such critiques deftly, by highlighting the validity as well as the luminously many-storied tradition of writing from life in America, and farther afield. “The local, the regional can – and does – become universal”, Hughes responded, expressing sentiments shared (almost word for word) by contemporary modernists such as William Carlos Williams and Lola Ridge, before adding his own flavour to the tale: “Sean O’Casey’s Irishmen are an example. So I would say to young Negro writers, do not be afraid of yourself. You are the world.”
Just as Martin Luther King Jnr (whom Hughes came to know tangentially in the early 1960s) would later perceive in the African-American movement against “racism, militarism, and extreme materialism” in the United States the “arc of the moral universe” at large (bending slowly, King said, towards justice), so Hughes's supposedly local concerns were framed in an internationalist and “universal” perspective. “In the Johannesburg mines”, one piece read, in 1925,
There are 240,000
Native Africans working.
What kind of poem
Make out of that?
Hughes quietly draws a line of association between questions of race and labour in America and similiar patterns of erasure and exploitation abroad, while signalling the arrival of a poetry concerned less with mannered gentility or academic allusion than with mass, black experience per se. “I herd with the many”, Hughes had declared the previous year, “Caged in the circus of civilization.”
As the last image implies, to capture and distill down to its essentials the (African-)American experience could also be fraught with political and personal anguish. “All the way from Africa to Georgia”, Hughes wrote, “I carried my sorrow songs”, placing the blood-spattered record of American racism within a centuries-long context of European colonial policy and thought: “The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo. / They lynch me still in Mississippi.”
In the period in which Hughes lived and wrote, indeed, such lynchings were recurrent events, along with the systematised destruction of black property, from Mississippi to Oklahoma. De facto apartheid in the American South co-existed with more subtle forms of racial and social ostracisation that remained in force across the Northern states. For all its ease of address and rhythmic exuberance, Hughes's poetry offered a chillingly close-focused catalogue of the agonising effects and insidious nature of such exclusions and abuses pervading American life. His work is populated by loner figures, suffering what Hughes once called “queer pain” (interpreted by some critics as a guarded reference to his own repressed Queerness, in a violently homophobic society). “Strange Hurt” recollects a woman whose behaviour seems mysterious and yet achingly familiar to the speaker:
In months of snowy winter
When cozy houses hold,
She'd break down doors
To wander naked
In the cold.
As here, one of Hughes's great talents as a political writer was his ability to acknowledge the psychological complexity of the people and characters he described, without softening the often multi-pronged critiques of power his poems simultaneously sought to articulate.
As we've seen, Hughes's anti-racism and social sympathies were coupled with a profound recognition of the forms of economic exploitation and hierarchy that shaped the political landscape of the unfolding century, both at home and abroad. “I live on a park bench. / You, Park Avenue”, begins one piece, “Hell of a distance / Between us two.” Another goes so far as to imagine a time “When the land belongs to the famers / And the factories to the working men”, asserting triumphantly that “The U.S.A. when we take control / Will be the U.S.S.A. then” – a concise expression of Hughes's Soviet sympathies throughout the 1930s, beliefs for which (to his distress) he would later appear before Joseph McCarthy's House of Un-American Activities Committee on the accusation of Communist Party membership.
The episode was telling. For although Hughes is rightly recognised today as a chronicler of America's grassroots life and democratic culture, containing multitudes, by the early 1950s he had long been known (gaining the attention of FBI) as a leading critic of US exceptionalism in his work. “Strangely undemocratic doings take place in the shadow of 'the world's greatest democracy'”, Hughes observed, as governmental and military leaders approved the deployment of segregated American regiments in the fight against global fascism during the second world war. “We want the right to ride without Jim Crow in any conveyance carrying the traveling public”, he likewise wrote in 1944, replying to an editor seeking clarification as to the aims of the black struggle for equality and meaningful citizenship: “We want the right when traveling to dine in any restaurant or seek lodgings in any hotel or auto camp open to the public which our purse affords. (Any Nazi may do so.)”
To read Hughes's work in an early 21st century context is to be reminded of the vast discrepancies between aspiration and fact, and in particular the extended history of white supremacy (its protean endurance) in American society. In the mid-1980s, Gwendolyn Brooks purported to speak for all “those of us who knew Langston” when she described his presence on the literary scene as one that had “made us all better people” – yet this geniality and warmth on Hughes's part belied a deeply registered sense of the crimes on which the USA's prosperity and political life were built. “The wreckage of Democracy is likely to pile up behind that Jim Crow Car”, he summarised in the 1940s, a premonition based on the cruelty and immense burden of racist violence he saw lurking at the heart of freedom's new, self-proclaimed protector on the global stage.
“Way down south in Dixie,” Hughes had written amidst the wave of racial lynchings that swept across the South throughout the 1920s, “(Bruised body high in air) / I asked the white Lord Jesus / What was the use of prayer.” Two decades later, he was equally clear in his perception and condemnation of police brutality as a method of racial terror. “Hit me! Jab me! / Make me say I did it”, opens one poem, entitled “Third Degree”. “I looked and I saw / That man they call the Law”, reads another: “I had visions in my head / Of being laid out cold and dead.” The piece finishes on an admonitory note, anticipating Hughes's explosive understanding of the likely consequence of Harlem's “dream deferred” in 1951:
Now I do not understand
Why God don't protect a man
From police brutality.
Being poor and black,
I've no weapon to strike back
So who but the Lord
Can protect me?
Significantly, in both pieces Hughes deploys the religious language of what Cornel West has termed “the Black Prophetic tradition”, specifically as a means of highlighting the social bonds and necessity for self-organisation (and even self-defence) among communities of colour – in the face of systematic racial violence. As here, however, Hughes's most perennial and valuable insistence is on the capacity of ostensibly marginalized and subjugated peoples to voice their own experiences and shape their own stories – primarily by acknowledging themselves in one another, as Hughes himself attempted to do in verse. “Radio Station: Harlem”, opens one poem addressed to the people of the West Indies, “Wave Length: The Human Heart.”
Against the vista of entrenched social hostility and exclusion alluded to in the pieces above, Hughes was unafraid to offer elegy and denunciation: a politics of feeling and poetics of response that would shake loose the social blindfolds preventing his fellow citizens (as he always perceived them) from recognising the terrifying reality of racism in America. But his poetry also gleams with the dance and flow of life on the move: hums and sings with living voices. “Folks, I'm telling you, / birthing is hard / and dying is mean”, reads one fragment of poetic plainsong, “so get yourself / a little loving / in between.”
The result is that Hughes's work stands less as a static archive of gone time, catering to a merely historical interest, than as a stereoscopic unreeling of riffs and scenes that seem, somehow, to involve us still, beckoning us into a world both theirs and ours. “I play it cool / And dig all jive. / That's the reason / I stay alive”, runs Hughes's “Motto” – a precursor to Gwendolyn Brooks's iconic snapshot and street-corner rap, “We Real Cool”. Today, Hughes's vim remains infectious, his observational intimacy both enveloping and fresh.
Politically, too, Hughes speaks to us in our time. As monuments to Confederate Generals of the American South and the merchants and genocidal monarchs of European imperialism are toppled, as increasingly militarised police forces and emboldened white supremacists deploy strategies of violence and provocation against communities of colour and their allies, his poetry offers both consolation and guidance. Hughes consoles: in his perennial capacity to side with and celebrate the self-activity of communities who exist in defiance of those lines of colour and class that power would draw across the map of our collective life. And he is a guide for our age, in the combination of clarity and dream, political fire and poetic soul, he carries to the fray of action: the not-yet-written pages of a future in which he heard, as we might do, the street-songs forming anew, the music of people who keep on going, going strong.
The Big Sea, by Langston Hughes
I Wonder as I Wander, by Langston Hughes
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad
The Life of Langston Hughes: Vols 1 & 2, by Arnold Rampersad